Professor Geoffrey Bownas: Eminent scholar who pioneered Japanese studies in the UK

Geoffrey Bownas was a distinguished Japanese linguist and scholar, and a pioneering Japanologist in the UK. But he also fostered business links between the UK and Japan, and his unfailing desire over nearly 70 years to promote goodwill between the two countries was recognised first by the Japanese government, with the award of the Order of the Sacred Treasure in 1999, and then by Britain, with a CBE in 2003 for services to Japanese studies and Anglo-Japanese relations.

Born the son of a postal worker in 1923 in West Yorkshire Geoffrey progressed by way of scholarships from Sandal School, Baildon, to Bradford Grammar School to the Queen's College, Oxford, where he would have spent four years reading classics had not the war intervened. In the army he was volunteered for an intensive Japanese-language course, which changed his life. After demobilisation he returned to Oxford, completed the classics course with a first-class degree and became a classics lecturer at in Aberystwyth.

He returned to Oxford in 1948 to do a second degree, this time in Chinese, and he got a first in this too. Then, from 1952, came two years in Japan (which should have been in China, but China was closed) working with the eminent Japanese Sinologist Kaizuka Shigeki. Kaizuka, whose book on Confucius Bownas was later to translate into English, urged him out of the library into the Japanese countryside, where his imagination was stimulated by folk rituals and practices. Bownas entered Japan as a Sinologist and left as a Japanologist.

Bownas might have followed awell-trodden academic path from then on, as he was appointed lecturer in Chinese and Japanese at Oxford in 1954, the first holder of such apost. The academic writings that resulted from his Japan trips in the 1950s are broadly in the field of anthropology: acute observation and detailed recording of traditional practices without the overlay of theory that would be normal now. But Bownas was not ambitious for himself as a scholar; rather, he was ambitious for Japanese studies and awareness of Japan in the UK.

In 1963 he succeeded in establishing Oxford's first full honours degree in Japanese. It was very much a "minimum kit" operation, and Bownas set about raising money to improve it. One of my first memories as his successor was finding carbon copies of scores of letters that he had personally typed to companies that might support his cause. In 1966 he had moved to Sheffield to become the first professor of Japanese and director of its new centre of Japanese studies, where disciplinary training in history and the social sciences was to be given equal weight with language study, a new type of undergraduate degree of which he was very proud.

His drive to raise awareness of Japan manifested itself in the Penguin Book of Japanese Verse (1964), whose first edition sold 100,000 copies, and many Japan-related presentations on radio and later for television (for example, the Inside Japan series of 1977). The Penguin Book was a collaboration between a scholar/translator (Bownas) and a poet (Anthony Thwaite OBE), and was a model of its kind in its evident determination to convey the essence of a rich poetic tradition. It is now a Penguin Classic.

The Sheffield centre, focused on being modern and relevant, was a very different academic environment from Oxford. Apart from administration (director of the centre and, from 1976, dean of the faculty of social sciences) and continued work on Japanese culture (Penguin New Writing in Japan, 1972, with the novelist Mishima Yukio as his co-editor), Bownas began to build a new role for himself as an intermediary between the British and Japanese business communities. He did consultancy work for the car industry, wrote for the Financial Times and, in 1974 edited, with the publisher Paul Norbury, Business in Japan, a Guide to Japanese Business Practice and Procedure.

By 1980 Bownas thought it was time to move on. He writes of being tired of administration and out of step with his staff. He took early retirement and devoted the rest of his life to fostering links between the UK and Japan. His consultancy for AMEC on the successful bid to supply steel for Kansai International Airport (1990) and his authorship of a special report for the Economist Intelligence Unit (1991) are just two examples of this. Early in the 21st century, as he approached 80, he added a campaigning interest in language teaching and in 2005 was elected a vice-president of the Institute of Linguists.

And all the time Geoffrey Bownas was singing. Choral singing was his principal leisure activity and at various times he joined more than eight different choirs. He could even claim to have sung with Pavarotti – as one of 1,500 voices in the World Festival Chorus at Verona in 1990. Japan and music defined Geoffrey Bownas's very full life.



Geoffrey Bownas, scholar of Japanese studies: born Yeadon, West Yorkshire 9 February 1923; CBE 2003; married firstly (two daughters), 2009 Wiesia Cook; died 17 February 2011.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Courtney Love has admitted using heroin while pregnant with Frances Bean Cobain, her daughter with Kurt Cobain
people
Sport
Murray celebrates reaching the final
tennis
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Life and Style
tech
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Extras
indybest
News
Joel Grey, now 82, won several awards for his role in Cabaret
people
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Sport
Harry Kane celebrates scoring the opening goal for Spurs
footballLive: All the latest transfer news as deadline day looms
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - 9-12 Months

£14500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Accounts Assistant is immedi...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Communications Executive

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Ashdown Group: SQL DBA (SSIS, ETL) - London, £60k

£60000 per annum: Ashdown Group: SQL DBA (SSIS, ETL) - Central London, £60,000...

Recruitment Genius: Compliance Assistant

£13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Pension Specialist was established ...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness